What it takes to become a grandmaster

MARCH 9 — Our undisputed No. 1 player for the last two years has been Yeoh Li Tian who just made history by winning the Zone 3.3 Chess Championships held in Taygaytay, Philippines.

Yeoh, who just turned 18, is one of the best-liked Malaysian chess players, and for several years now has been training on his own. 

His parents of course have been instrumental in his success by providing the financial and moral support needed for participation in numerous international competitions over the years.

No Malaysian has reached the heights that Yeoh has achieved with his most recent success.

He is the first Malaysian ever to win this regional qualifying event and make it to the World Cup which is the next stage of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) World Chess Championship cycle.

By doing so, he not only also made his but also Malaysia’s first ever Grandmaster norm (three are usually needed to get the title).

Is Yeoh a special talent? Well, certainly. From eight years of age, he was already talked about as a young player who might achieve great things.

But there was also Mas Hafizulhelmi, now in his thirties who was as talented and at his peak, could hold his own against some of the best players in the world.

This is something Yeoh is potentially capable of but not yet had the chance to do so; twice, due to exams, missing out on the Olympiads where he would have led the national team.

Let’s, however, not take anything away from a young man who has long been winning local tournaments with a round to spare and constantly makes International Master title norms!

In Tagaytay, Yeoh, whose participation was supported financially by the Malaysian Chess Federation, was playing as the sole Malaysian representative.

He had three critical breaks of luck, those things every champion needs to win; the first was when the former China No. 1 Grandmaster Zhang Zhong—who now plays for Singapore—was controversially omitted, second was when Mongolia with their many Grandmasters did not show, and lastly, he got the white pieces against all the top contenders. 

Yet, what a fantastic performance it was to successfully take on the very best—all hardened professional chess players—from Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia! 

It was heart-warming that a group of Malaysians led by Norazwan Bin Kamaruzaman of AI Chess and Herman A. Hamid who came all the way from Sabah took it upon themselves to rush to KLIA to welcome back our hero, even insisting on interviewing Yeoh on the spot and livestreaming it.

Yet there are some who are already bringing up ugly race and party politics while detracting from his performance.

I understand the Malaysian Chess Federation is looking to see how they can help him achieve what all Malaysians want for him as it will also be the country’s success. It has to start with the coming Asian Individual Championships in May and the World Cup later this year.

Yeoh’s family can easily afford his air tickets and pay for his hotel accommodation, but it cannot continue to be a trial and error process if Yeoh is to become a Grandmaster.

Many have quietly helped Yeoh over the years and I am honoured to be among them. I remember him asking me when he was just 13  if I would accompany him to a tournament because his father could not take leave from work.

He has come this far on his own through very hard work, maximising all his personal resources as well as exploiting every available opportunity.

Yeoh deserves Malaysia’s full support. He will be the first to admit he does not have the weapons yet to take on the very best. I can also say with certainty that he has significant knowledge and technical gaps which he is fully aware of and doing all he can to overcome them.

Yes, the young man will never be a chess professional and it is likely a non-chess career will be his future. 

Too often we have seen young talents make a splash in the beginning but because of various circumstances (like in the case of Mas Hafizulhelmi who had to choose between career and chess and for whom it is possibly still not too late) their full potential was never achieved.

Now is the time to help him with what he needs to become a Grandmaster as on his own it will likely take a little too long... or be a case of, a little too late.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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